Colorado’s Million Dollar Highway is often considered one of the greatest drives in the world and a ride everyone should experience before they die. It does indeed provide some of the best views imaginable but there’s so much more to the San Juans than this scenic drive.
From Durango to Silverton and Ouray, there are so many things to do that will take your breath away like hiking, biking, and off roading. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about traveling on the Million Dollar Highway and all the great things to do along the way
Where is the Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway is a scenic section of the US-550 highway which runs north to south. The scenic section that we refer to as the Million Dollar Highway is the section between Durango and Ridgeway.
From north to south, the highway also passes through the small towns of Ouray and Silverton.
Why is it Called the Million Dollar Highway
So why is it called the Million Dollar Highway? Truth is, nobody knows. Ooooh spooky, right?
For real though, some say that the gravel they used to pave the road contained gold and was worth millions. Of course it could also be that the road cost that much to make, that the road weaved through a large gold mining region, or my favorite, that the views from the highway are worth millions.
Locals even joke that they call it the Million Dollar Highway because you couldn’t pay them a million dollars to drive that road in the wintertime.
Traveling on the Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway has a reputation of being a wildly dangerous drive with sheer drops and no guardrails.
First, let me reassure that when driven under normal, sunny circumstances in a standard vehicle, it’s not dangerous.
It’s true that there are a few sections without guardrails and sheer drops and if you have a fear of heights or you’re not used to driving in the mountains, it can be scary. Driving this highway however, is no more dangerous than driving on a busy freeway.
It can also be a bit unnerving to drive the Million Dollar Highway in a big RV or when towing however it is still doable.
There is really only one part of this highway that is abnormally “dangerous” and it’s the section just 10 minutes before reaching Ouray when headed northbound.
As you can see in the photo shown below, it’s a narrow two lane road but this is the part where there is no guardrail and the edge is sheer. Fortunately, on the downhill, you won’t be on the exposed side of the highway, it’s only on the way up that nervous drivers will feel a bit white knuckled.
The good new is, if you combine this with the San Juan Skyway and make your road trip a loop, then you don’t have to worry about driving on the “exposed side.”
Overall, don’t let fear hold you back from experiencing this beautiful drive. When in doubt, take it slow.
The drive leading up to Red Mountain Pass is really quite moderate and typical of Colorado roads so if just that section unnerves you, I wouldn’t recommend going on to Ouray.
That being said, it is dangerous to drive this in icy/winter conditions. Be sure to check up on road conditions before you head out on the scenic highway.
Map of the Million Dollar Highway Road Trip
With all the great stops along the Million Dollar Highway, I’ve created a custom map for you to save and view at any time on your Google Maps account.
This map includes all the top activities from hiking to climbing, biking, camping, and even just scenic stops and eateries that I later recommend in this blog.
Quick tip: If you don’t want to see certain categories on the map (example: climbing) all you have to do is click on the checkbox and all climbing spots will be hidden.
Million Dollar Highway Road Trip
Durango, often considered one of America’s best outdoor towns, is the most popular destination on the Million Dollar Highway partially due its famous Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. This makes it a common place for travelers to stay for a few days.
Whether you plan on slowly making your way up the Million Dollar Highway, spending a day in each town, or plan on exploring the scenic drive in one day, you have to spend at least 1 day enjoying the historic town of Durango.
Durango’s unique geographic location, where the desert meets the mountains, makes it a really versatile jumping off point.
Within 15 minutes of downtown you can explore dozens of trails in the dry mountains nearby or you can head north on the Million Dollar Highway and be in jagged, alpine-esque peaks.
Don’t miss the beautiful bike path that runs along the Animas River, stroll through historic Main Street and grab a bite to eat, and if you’re looking for a challenge, take on the Centennial Nature Trail, AKA the Sky Steps which is a stairmaster that brings you to an incredible view of Durango.
Durango is also a well known climbing destination and there crags of all sorts here varying from the trad climbing hotspot of East Animas, the sport haven of Lemon Reservoir, or the bouldering area of Sailing Hawks.
Of course, if you make a trip all the way to Durango, you can’t miss the famous Narrow Gauge Railroad scenic train ride to Silverton. If you’re a hardcore adventurer, you can hop on the historic train and have them drop you off to go on a backcountry hike that’s inaccessible to cars (don’t worry, they’ll pick you up at the end as well).
Be sure to check out our blog on 10 Things to do in Durango for all the details on visiting Durango (coming soon).
Durango to Silverton
As you head north for Durango it get exponentially more beautiful. The mountains slowly get taller and the aspens get nearer as the road gets windier.
Most easily distinguished as the location of Purgatory Ski Resort and the suburb of Hermosa, this region is home to Durango’s best adventures. Here there is every outdoor activity imaginable.
You can mountain bike up the Jones/Dutch Creek loop, hike the Purgatory Trail, backpack to Chicago Basin, camp, fish, or hike on Haviland Lake, climb easy single pitch at Fume Wall, hike up to Castle Rock or even tackle the multi pitch routes that ascend the face.
Here there’s also the can’t miss restaurant James Harvest Ranch Grill, which is home to some of the best craft burgers we’ve ever tasted and is best enjoyed after a long day outdoors. Or, head to Trimble Hot Springs if you’re feeling down for some relaxation.
Just past Purgatory, there is another big adventure hub, Engineer Mountain. Engineer Mountain is one of Durango’s most stunning and strenuous day hikes, has multiple ascent options, and it can also be mountain biked on black diamond trails from point to point (experts only.)
After you pass Engineer Mountain you’ll reach the scenic viewpoint of Coal Bank Pass at 10,610 feet elevation, where you should definitely stop and take it in before weaving your way along one of the prettiest sections of the Million Dollar Highway.
Next you’ll come to Big and Little Molas Lake which are incredible places to hike and camp.
Finally, the Million Dollar Highway will descend from the ridge line into Silverton valley.
Located at a high elevation of 9310 feet, Silverton was a full scale mining town in the late 1800s and it shows to this day. While its mills and mining are no longer under operation, the town has kept its historic feel intact and it really feels as if you’ve gone back in time.
Old fashioned buildings line the street–err, well it’s just a dirt road. Silverton is about as small as a town can get without being a ghost town and if it weren’t for the major attraction, the Narrow Gauge Railroad, Silverton would be left for only the most hardcore outdoorsmen. However, what’s coolest about Silverton isn’t the vintage town feel, it’s the explorations that lie beyond.
The tiny mountain town has grown to become a major off roading hub and is the start to more than 100 miles of off roading trails and 40 different routes.
Some of the most popular and iconic rides to be enjoyed from Silverton are the Alpine Loop, Hurricane Pass and California Pass, and Engineer Pass, Black Bear Pass, Imogene Pass, and more!
Either bring your own 4X4 vehicle or rent a razor from Silverton Rock Pirates.
Silverton Rock Pirates doesn’t just offer off road vehicle rentals, they make the entire experience pure fun!
The customer service is amazing, the entire set up process is super easy, and even if you have no off roading experience their GPS and spot tracker beacons will make you feel totally safe out in the wilderness. From there, get ready for the time of you life!
No matter where you go off roading, you’re bound to be greeted with views that will take your breath away because that’s really what’s so amazing about this experience. By off roading, people have the ability to go see incredible views that most travelers wouldn’t get to see unless they’re experienced hikers.
In addition to all the epic off roading, Silverton has hiking, biking, fishing, and climbing galore.
There’s a pump track and a small trail ride on the east side of town and though hiking is possible, it’s best to be ready for a multi day hike. Many of Silverton’s top trails go far into the Weminuche Wilderness Area and must be backpacked. If you like day hikes, explore other areas instead.
There’s also great climbing areas in Silverton including some great sport multipitches in Eureka like Hardrock Miner (a 5 pitch 5.7) or Five Card Draw (5.9). Stripe Wall is a popular moderate single pitch sport crag and the more experienced climbers will want to head to Master’s Wall in Cunningham Gulch where’s you’ll find quality routes in the 5.11-5.13 range.
Many areas in Silverton are great ice climbing spots in the wintertime though if ice climbing is what you love, you ought to head to Ouray.
Silverton to Ouray
Welcome to my favorite section of the Million Dollar Highway. Unlike the forested, drier mountains near Durango, when you leave Silverton you enter an upper plateau with more peaks and meadows.
First things first, right as you leave Silverton, a brief 5 minute drive will bring you to the junction for South Mineral campground, which lies down a 5 mile dirt road. Don’t worry, the road is smooth and any size RV can make it to the campground. Along the way you’ll pass 3 great BLM campgrounds (which means it’s free to camp there): Kendall Campground, Golden Horn Campground, and Anvil Campground.
South Mineral campground is a beautiful national forest campground to stay at and more importantly, it’s the trailhead to one of Colorado best day hikes, Ice Lakes. For details on how to hike to Ice Lakes click here (coming soon).
After the detour, head back north on the Million Dollar Highway and get ready to be blown away by Red Mountain Pass. On the drive up to Red Mountain Pass, you’ll pass a junction for the famous 4×4 routes, Ophir Pass and then Black Bear Pass, on your left. You’ll also pass the trailhead for Columbine Lake which is a top hike for alpine lake lovers.
When descending Red Mountain Pass, it’s not hard to see where the pass gets its name.
You’ll be greeted with awesome views of the valley ahead of you, old mining ruins, and gorgeous red mountainsides, which contrasts beautifully against the aspens trees when fall comes around.
Speaking of fall, this is a prime spot on the drive for fall colors.
The road finally gets narrow and windy with lots of hairpin switchbacks so don’t take your eyes off the road for too long. Because of this, be sure you make time to stop and take it in every so often.
Tip: there are some small pullouts (only suitable for cars, not RVs) when you begin your descent that make for great photo ops (though there aren’t exactly good places for everyone to get out and stretch their legs).
Along the way, stop to explore Idarado Mine and its quaint cottages and Crystal Lake which is probably the prettiest roadside lake I’ve ever seen.
On the final stretch of highway in Ouray, you’ll come to the most unnerving section but don’t worry, it’s only unnerving the way up when you’re one the side with sheer drop-offs and no guardrails (remember: take it slow). A few more steep switchbacks later and the village of Ouray will open up before you.
You can stop at Bear Creek Falls overlook or the Overlook of Ouray however, if you’re a hiker, you can pass on this because there’s a recommended Ouray hike that delivers even better views.
Welcome to the Switzerland of America….Okay, I’m going to be honest, I love Ouray, I really do, but it’s no Switzerland, nottttt even close.
Ouray is a pretty mountain town filled with rolling valleys and surrounded by sheer rock faces but its ecosystem is dry, unlike the typical mountain town you picture in Colorado. The surrounding peaks aren’t towering and jagged like Telluride nor lush like Breckenridge or Aspen but its still a beautiful place along the Million Dollar Highway that has a lot of really fun things to do.
Ouray is best known for 3 things.
First is the hot springs and no trip here is complete without visiting Ouray Hot Springs pool once.
Second is the Uncompahgre Gorge AKA the Ice Park. This is one of the most renowned ice climbing destinations in the world due it’s accessibility and hundreds of routes. It’s a great destination for all levels of climbers and if you’ve never ice climbed, there are great guiding services in town that can get you started.
Third is, once again, off roading. Off roading is equally as spectacular in Ouray but with a few different options. Here you’re closer to the start of Engineer Pass and Imogene Pass, which are two of the gnarliest 4X4 routes in the San Juans. There’s also the easy Yankee Boy Basin route and more.
Here, there are 2 amazing hikes…The Perimeter Trail, an easy 5 mile trail that goes along the Ridgeline around town. It’s very easy, gaining little elevation, and delivers amazing views of town and offers multiple vantage points to look at the sounding peaks.
Now if you’re like us and are looking for the most epic hike possible, you’re definitely going to want to tackle one of Colorado’s most famous 14ers, Mount Sneffels (super intimidating name, am I right?). To reach the trailhead you don’t need 4WD but it is a semi-rough dirt road (no RVs). If you have 4WD, you can cut out 3 miles of hiking. Note: The Southwest ascent is a Class 3 scramble and is for expert hikers only.
Let’s not forget about the other great things in Ouray like scrap cookies at Mouse’s, the brewery with a view, Box Canyon Falls, and all the great non winter climbing like the Pool Wall, Waterfall Wall, and Overlook Cliff.